While we all enter this field with the goal of helping patients, it soon becomes apparent that not all of our patients want or appreciate our help! Many pets become stressed in the veterinary hospital, and this stress can be especially pronounced in cats.
Not only is stress unpleasant for our patients, it can make our jobs more difficult. Anxious or fearful cats are more likely to injure themselves, their owners, and members of the veterinary team. An anxious cat might not permit a thorough physical exam, increasing the risk of a missed diagnosis. Finally, some physical exam and laboratory parameters, such as respiratory rate, blood pressure, and blood glucose, can be difficult to interpret in a cat that is stressed.
A Kinder Form of Veterinary Medicine
When I graduated from veterinary school, scruffing feline patients was the norm. My mentors rarely reached for gabapentin in grumpy kitties, instead using brute force when possible and reaching for injectable sedatives only in extremely fractious cats.
Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since then.
In 2009, Dr. Sophia Yin published a book titled Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs and Cats. This book was accompanied by courses on Low Stress Handling®, designed to reduce fear and anxiety in veterinary patients.
The following year, in 2010, the CATalyst Council and the American Association of Feline Practitioners introduced a Cat Friendly Practice® program. While this program encompasses a number of aspects of feline veterinary care, stress reduction is a significant component of the Cat Friendly program.
As the most recent addition to this movement, Fear Free® was developed in 2016. This program also emphasizes working with patients in ways that decrease anxiety. Fear Free® offers various certifications for veterinarians, veterinary team members, and practices, advocating for the use of fear free handling techniques.
The combined contributions of these three programs have helped us reduce stress in feline patients, removing a potential barrier to care and improving the quality of care that we are able to provide. Reducing feline anxiety helps everyone: patients, clients, and veterinary teams.
7 Tips for Creating Positive Feline Veterinary Visits
- Acclimate cats to their carrier
Many cat owners struggle to get their cat into a carrier. The ensuing rodeo guarantees that your feline patients are stressed before they even enter your parking lot.
Teach your clients how to acclimate their cat to a carrier. They can begin by placing the carrier in a visible area of the home and encourage the cat to enter it with high-value treats. Once the cat is comfortable with the carrier, clients can begin closing the door for brief periods of time. A gradual progression (like you would use to crate-train a dog) can help most cats acclimate to their carrier and to travel.
- Use treats as a distraction
You may have heard the statement “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” In many cases, the same is true for cats. While we often don’t think of cats as being food-motivated, they can be… once you find the right treats! Common feline favorites include whipped cream, marshmallows, canned tuna, anchovy paste, and canned cat food.
Encourage your clients to withhold their cat’s breakfast before their appointment, so your feline patients arrive hungry. Keep a variety of tasty feline treats on hand and take a few minutes to learn which treats your patient prefers. Once you find your patient’s preferred high-value treat, the client or vet tech can use treats to distract the cat during your exam and any necessary treatments.
- Separate cats from dogs
Many cats become anxious in the presence of dogs, so you should try to separate dogs and cats in your hospital. Designate a cat-only area of your lobby, so nervous cats don’t have to deal with intrusive, sniffing dog noses poking and prodding at their carriers. Designate cat-only exam rooms, which can remain free of fear-inducing canine odors. Locate these exam rooms far from your boarding kennel and close interior doors to minimize the sound of barking dogs.
- Use calming pheromones
Calming pheromones, such as Feliway®, can decrease patient stress. Place diffusers in or near your feline waiting area, exam rooms, treatment areas, and kennels. Consider spraying your scrubs with feline pheromones and placing a pheromone-sprayed towel or blanket on the exam table. These simple steps can help significantly decrease anxiety in your patients.
- Adjust to the pet’s comfort level
It’s important to be flexible when handling and examining feline patients. Some cats do better when examined in their carrier (with the top removed), while other cats are content to be restrained in a “purrito.” Have a toolbox of handling techniques available, and adapt your approach as needed.
- Prescribe pre-visit drugs for anxious cats
For some cats, all the interventions in the world are not enough to ensure a stress-free experience. Giving 100 mg of gabapentin 90 minutes before a veterinary visit can markedly reduce anxiety in many cats.
- Take a break if needed
When you’re double-booked back to back all day long, there can be a temptation to just wrestle the cat into submission and get the visit over with. While that might work in the short term, it will ultimately result in a pet that is even more difficult to handle in the future. Don’t hesitate to step back, take a deep breath, and regroup. It’s okay to tell the client “this isn’t working, so let’s reschedule for another day and do XYZ differently.” As long as you develop a Plan B that is in the best interests of the cat, your good clients will understand.
While it may not be possible to create an entirely stress-free environment in every veterinary practice, focus on promoting the best possible experience for your feline patients. Not only will this approach benefit your patients and your clients, it will ensure that you are able to provide the best possible medical care while reducing stresses on your veterinary team.